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It’s Sweet VFX Dreams for Framestore on ‘Slumberland’

The visual effects studio's team, led by VFX supervisor João Sita and animation supervisor Fernando Herrera, delivered 200 shots that featured a bed that walks and floats, an animated stuffie named Pig, and a massive flying Canadian goose, on the fantasy adventure now streaming on Netflix.

Dreams offer an opportunity to experience the impossible, which in turn provided the premise for a weekly comic strip by American cartoonist Winsor McCay called “Little Nemo in Slumberland.”  After shortening the title to Slumberland, filmmaker Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire & Mockingjay) switched the protagonist’s gender from male to female, then sent her on a sleep-induced journey to find a special pearl in the Sea of Nightmares that will enable her to reunite with her father who was lost at sea. Assisting Lawrence was frequent collaborator, Visual Effects Supervisor Adrian de Wet, who brought on Framestore to handle the walking bed that becomes a floating vessel, animate the toy Pig that comes to life, and produce a massive flying Canadian goose.

Now streaming on Netflix, Slumberland stars Marlow Barkley, Jason Momoa, Kyle Chandler, and Chris O’Dowd. It’s written by David Guion and Michael Handelman (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) and produced by Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, David Ready and Lawrence.

One iconic moment from the comic strip depicts Little Nemo’s bed growing legs and walking around. “On set we had people shaking the bed to make it look like it was growing, and we had to create an animation that fit the same timing and feel like all of the weight shifts were in the right place,” states Fernando Herrera, Animation Supervisor. “Another challenge was to have the legs growing, which is like creating geometry from nowhere.”  The bed coming alive was treated as a transformation, inspired by a baby giraffe learning how to walk.  “The legs were supposed to be retractable as if the geometry of the bed would extend to produce another piece,” explains João Sita, VFX Supervisor.   “Fernando came up with the solution of it being a retractable/extendable.” Noting there were two types of legs, Herrera adds, “One worked inside of the room, and another was for when the bed is walking on the street, which were way longer. Legs couldn’t be robotic like a Transformer.  In the end, we made them grow in an organic way.” 

To head out into the city below, the bed has to go through the apartment window first.  “With the postvis, that was our first test into how we could make this happen,” states Sita.  “They had shot something on location with the camera outside looking down following the legs and the glass and another one in the studio of Nemo with the bed. We had to figure out what camera move would be ideal for marrying the two plates together. The windows of the locations were too narrow, so we had to replace all of them with a new design for the building.  It was an interesting exercise in timing in regards to when the legs and glass hit the ground.  If you make it too fast, then everything looks too close.  If you go too slow then it looks like the glass is not behaving according to gravity.”  

As the bed crosses a busy traffic intersection, by not interacting with the surroundings, it tells audiences that Nemo is dreaming.  “Some of the cars are in the plate and others were CG,” remarks Herrera.  “The brief was that it had to look like the bed was unfazed going through.  The bed goes into a little tunnel and it was hard to fit the long legs inside of that. Once it gets to the water then we have a low angle underwater shot where you see the swimming strokes of the legs. The reference was like a frog. This bed is good at a lot of different motions!”  Practical elements were shot to get the proper water interaction. “There was a water tank and a rig that would move the bed in the water,” states Sita.  “For the Northern Lights, the DP did color changes on set as well as the lighthouse light. Those nice cues helped later on when we were compositing.”

Nemo’s constant companion is a stuffed toy called Pig that has a penchant for eating anything. “Francis Lawrence wanted something dream-like where Pig would move as a quadruped and that’s when the character became alive as he was a lot more interesting to look at,” states Herrera. “Pig turned into a fantastical creature rather than a puppet. As a stuffie, his movements had to be restricted more than a regular quadruped, so we made him clumsy; that became a running joke throughout the movie.  Any moment we could [work it in], Pig misses a jump, skids, or falls on his face.  Usually, that is something which happens in the background but adds to the character.”  To emphasize the physical comedy, the focus was on Pig’s ears and body movements instead of facial expressions. “It stays true to the stuffie,” notes Sita.  “That was the main reason why Francis didn’t want us to use movements that are human-like.  He wanted to have the real prop come alive.  It would be the same character, but now animated.   That was a clever decision because Pig was relatable without having to force too much.”    

“Because of the pandemic we had one of the animators go to the office and film themselves manipulating the actual prop for us to see how Pig moved and how the material would react,” Herrera shares.  “We used that reference to build the rig, animation and movement. It helped to have the real prop.”  Pig’s animation could not be completely judged until a render was produced with the fur.  Herrera adds, “Our rig had a tool that allowed us to see the fur volume outside of Maya and would also render whenever we needed to see the animation for approval because it would change the wrinkles or how fat Pig looks.” 

The real stuffie was used most of time when Pig interacted with the cast. “The stuffie on set didn’t have the same malleability as our CG character, so we would paint it out and replace it with the animated version. When Pig tumbles into the pillow, we go, ‘Lets propose using a CG pillow for that because we can control the interaction.’  When Pig is interacting with the blankets, we used a combination of 2D trickery and CG. 

Two different versions of Pig were used. According to Sita, “We had a wet variant when they come out of the toilet and Nemo squeezes him. For underwater sequences we spent more time on the dynamics of the fur than the look. There was a slight difference in the specular quality of the fur and in the color of the base fabric, which had to appear soaked.”  In reality Pig should be floating in the water. “It was like animating in a low-gravity environment,” notes Herrera. “Every time Pig jumped, he would take a lot more time to land.  It helps to convey that he’s underwater.”  Sita enjoyed the nuances.  “I love the movement of the head when Pig is looking at Nemo. It’s not like a normal rotation.  There is a minor delay. Pig launches forward and then midway he does a little catchup with the legs.”  At one point, Pig swallows a pearl, which supposedly will allow Nemo to see her father again.  “Every time Pig eats something it was more like a cheat because he doesn’t have a throat hole to swallow anything,” reveals Herrera.  “We were always trying to find ways to hide that stuff!  When the client did their screenings, Pig was a huge success so they added more shots and became a cooler creature to work on.”  

The giant Canadian goose that flew onto the screen posed particular challenges. “The biggest challenge on the show was the goose, though we were fortunate to be working on the asset in the previs before they shot it,” states Herrera. “The goose buck was built based on our model but not precisely the same.  We also provided them with a flying cycle that had the proper speed and cadence of a giant goose.   We had to place cards of our live-action actors on top of our CG goose and we were trying to analyze their performances.  Whenever they did something, that was a cue for us to do something bigger for the goose as well, otherwise it felt too much like you’re inside of a cycle and lost the naturalism.”  Needed reference footage was found across the Atlantic Ocean.   “At the last minute we internally decided to change the size of the goose because it wasn’t big enough!” reveals Sita.  “Just as we got reworking the asset, the geese had just finished their migration to Canada and a pond was found in the UK where they hangout!” 

Despite doing a one-to-one match, the barb in the feathers looked like big wires. “We had to do thinner barbs and more of them,” explains Sita.  “It came down to the details such as matching the barbs with the length of the feathers.  Some of the feathers close to characters we treated as fur. You would sit in the portion that has the roots of the feathers so the feathers in the back would be raised up.  But if the feathers were too long, we ended up with a goose that looked like a peacock!   We had to shorten feathers to avoid that type of silhouette. Also, when birds are flying there is almost no motion in the feathers.  If you have a background in the distance, if it’s too far, you’re not seeing a lot of parallax, and if you have the bird flying in the foreground without any motion in the feathers, it looks like a static creature.  Adrian de Wet was keen to have everything moving.  You have to feel this gust of wind going across the feathers and changing the silhouette.”

Framestore was roughly responsible for 200 shots with a lot of work shared with DNEG, Scanline VFX and Rodeo FX because of vendor capacity issues caused by the pandemic.  “We would do animation, render and composite Pig and the plate was a greenscreen, meaning if there was green spill, we would replicate that so when the next company dealt with the spill, everything will follow the same way,” states Sita.  “It was interesting to share the work and we also had a chance to work with DNEG while they did the environment of the Sea of Nightmares. It was collaborative.”  Other visual effects companies animated Pig.  “Since Framestore was driving the asset, we’d go on calls with the other vendors to explain what we were planning to do so it looked consistent in the edit,” notes Herrera.  “It was important to keep the communication open.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.